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Coup attempts and division in the military mar Ethiopia’s fresh start

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 24 June 2019 13:56

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announces the failed coup on television on 23 June, 2019. (ETV via AP)

At least four people, including the military chief of staff and a regional president, were killed in two separate incidents in Ethiopia last Saturday in what the government says was an attempted coup.

  • The president of Amhara region, Ambachew Mekonnen, and his adviser Ezez Wassie were shot and killed in the region’s capital of Bahir Dar.
  • The regional attorney general, Migbaru Kebede, was also injured in the attack, and has been receiving treatment.

Later reports indicated that the attack, which occurred on Saturday evening, was well-planned and coordinated. One government spokesperson referred to the attackers as “a hit squad”.

  • “It was a coup attempt that did not even last an hour. It was a complete failure. We are pursuing those who managed to escape arrest,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told the nation in a televised address on Saturday night.

Amhara, the second most populous of Ethiopia’s nine semi-autonomous regions, has been one of the flashpoints of the country’s escalating ethnic violence. Last month, clashes between the Amhara and Gumuz ethnic groups left dozens of people dead.

Ambachew was selected as the region’s president three months ago.

  • He had previously served in the federal government, and was a known ally of Prime Minister Abiy. His deputy, Lake Ayalew, is now the region’s acting president.

In a separate incident, this time in the capital Addis Ababa just a few hours later, army chief of staff General Seare Mekonnen and a retired general were shot and killed by Seare’s bodyguard. Gen. Seare was appointed last year to replace General Samora Muhammad Yunis, who had held the post for 17 years.

  • The army chief and the retired major general, identified as Gezai Abera, were reportedly planning a response to the earlier events in Amhara when they were killed.

Abiy, who appeared on the televised address dressed in military fatigues, said that the attempted coup was orchestrated by Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige and other “ill-motivated individuals”.

Asaminew was given amnesty last year, and has been the Amhara Region Peace and Security Bureau head. He and General Tefera Mamo were arrested in 2009 on the grounds of an alleged coup plot, and had served nine years before they were released. Their military ranks were also reinstated.

Some believe Asaminew was hired to help the ruling EPRDF party to face down Amharic ethno-nationalists through a strategy of installing an ethno-nationalist of their own.

If so, then the effort has backfired dangerously.

  • A week before the coup attempt, Brig. Gen. Asaminew openly told the Amhara people to arm themselves in a video circulated online and seen by Reuters.
  • This and other moves by the general are said to have been on the agenda of the meeting where the Amhara president and his adviser were killed. It is possible the attacks were an attempt by Asaminew to cling onto power.
  • Gen. Tefera, now the head of special forces in Amhara, said that “…most of the people who attempted the coup have been arrested, although there are a few still at large.” It is still not clear if Asaminew was among those arrested.

The chair of the TPLF-wing of the ruling coalition, who is also serving as the acting president of Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael, said at a press conference on Sunday that the assassinations were planned, and there could be more.

  • “These anti-peace forces plan to kill our best men,” Debretsion said, drawing attention to the fact that both the generals killed in Addis Ababa were from Tigray region.

In his address, Premier Abiy also sought to assure the nation that the incidents were not ethnic, perhaps to allay fears that the situation in Amhara could escalate to a level of the ethnic fighting in the Somali Region last August that killed more than 58 people and injured over 260 others.

  • In February this year, the former Somali regional president, Abdi Mohammed Omer, and other officials pleaded not guilty to charges of instigating the ethnic violence.
  • Abiy also referred to a previous incident a year ago, where a grenade was tossed into a rally he was addressing, killing two people and injuring more than 100 others.

This week’s attacks will further complicate Premier Abiy Ahmed’s reforms, which have opened democratic space in the country but also heightened ethnic tensions.

They also point to tensions within the armed forces, less than a year after hundreds of soldiers, some of them armed, marched on the Prime Minister’s palace to demand better pay. In a question-and-answer session in parliament after that incident, Premier Abiy said the soldiers had wanted to kill him and that “the intention was to abort the ongoing reforms”.

  • Abiy extensively restructured the military and intelligence arms last year, replacing key figures and arresting others on different charges.
  • The reforms, while enhancing his control on the security organs, also made him powerful enemies.

Among those reforms is an international-standard general election, slated for next year. Earlier this month, the electoral board said it was behind on plans for the elections and could be forced to delay them if the security situation is not solved.

Just hours before the Saturday attacks, opposition groups and some ruling party mandarins such as Debretsion had said that any delay to the 2020 elections would be dangerous.

  • In an address, Debretsion said that delaying the elections would mean that the “Ethiopia government after 2020 is illegitimate,” and could have “grave consequences.”

Keep an eye on: Whether Prime Minister Abiy can take a tougher line against the ethno-nationalists in Oromo, Amhara and Tigray without derailing the planned political reforms and next year’s elections.

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